Happy Birthday Ruthie


I’m told my Grandma used to cook. “I cooked plenty,” she’d say, according to my mother. A bold statement coming from the woman who had a sign in her kitchen that read I only have a kitchen because it came with the house.  

She would have turned 89 today.

During the 16 years that I had the privilege of spending with my Grandma Ruth, the extent of her cooking was as follows: pouring a bowl of Cap'n Crunch, peeling the paper wrapper off of a blueberry mini muffin, buttering—or rather margerine-ing—a piece of challah toast, cracking the lid on a Jello pudding cup, and, the most elaborate of them all, whipping up a pot of the kosher macaroni and cheese favorite, Wacky Mac.

However, according to the recipe box we found hidden in her kitchen cupboard after she died, Ruth did at one time dabble in the exotic when it came to recipes.

Lime jello mold perhaps?

Forget takeoutChinese fried rice anyone?

Every cook must have a go-to dessert recipe up their sleeve. Who doesn't love mandel bread? 

Sometimes I daydream about what it would have been like to cook with my Grandma back then. Standing at the kitchen counter together watching jello bloom right before our eyes or shaping a batch of mandelbread before slicing them into picture-perfect logs. While the fantasy is fun, the Ruth I knew left the cooking to the cooks.

Enter teenage Maddie, wide-eyed and recently converted to a full-blown Food Network fan.  After a chance viewing of the White House easter egg hunt with my dad one day, I grew completely hooked to the channel and the food world in general. Post-school afternoons became centered around the latest episode of From Martha's Kitchen and Emeril Live! while weekends were a time to practice all of the slicing/baking/roasting that my celebrity chef favorites executed so flawlessly. My obsession quickly carried over into copious amounts of cookbook purchases, a slew of impromptu dinner parties for friends and family, and an extensive series of dining experiences within the Chicago "must eat" restaurant scene. Looking back, I think I can safely say I ate better as a sixteen year old than probably any other time in my life. 

As my newfound love of food strengthened, so did it begin to work its way into other realms of my life--more specifically, my relationship with my Grandma. Every visit to her house in Detroit brought with it such a specific kind of joy. Besides the chance to cook in a pristine, basically untouched kitchen, what excited me most was finding a dish that would really make her happy. Ruth wasn't a picky eater by any means, but she wasn't what you'd call a "foodie" either. She had dishes she liked and dishes she hated, but nothing ever seemed to stand out to her. I made it my mission to change that. 

While I cooked a good deal in my Grandma’s kitchen, the only dish that left a lasting impression for me was the “you won't be single for long" penne alla vodka, a hallmark dish of my culinary idol at the time, Ms. Rachael Ray. I couldn't even guess how often we ate this pasta, but what I do know is that the experience of preparing it was always filled with sincere Grandma appreciation and kindhearted Grandma concerns/questions like "Watch your fingers when you chop those shallots!" or "Can I clear some dishes out of the way for you?" Maybe Ruth wasn't a cook during my lifetime, but you couldn't deny the woman had a presence in the kitchen. 

At the end of it all, as I’d carry the steaming pot of pasta to her thick glass table with the bamboo placemats, a small smile would break across her face as she indulged her first bite. Thats all I needed. Mission accomplished. And together, my parents, my sister, my Grandma, and I ate dinner together. 

So today, on her 89th birthday, I honor this tradition and eat pasta for Ruth, who cooked plenty. 

I am fully aware that the above photograph looks more like pasta soup than penne alla vodka. I did make some adjustments to the recipe below to give the dish a saucier rather than soupier texture. Best enjoyed with a nice hunk of crusty bread and a chilled glass of your favorite white wine. 

You Won't Be Single for Long Vodka Cream Pasta 

Adapted from Rachael Ray 30 Minute Meals 2

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 shallots, minced

1 cup vodka

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes

salt and pepper

16oz dried tube-shaped pasta, like penne or rigatoni 

2/3 cup heavy cream

a handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped

parmigiano reggiano cheese

Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallots. Sauté for 3-5 minutes until the shallots become translucent. Add the vodka and reduce by half, 2-3 minutes. Add chicken stock and crushed tomatoes. Bring sauce to a boil and reduce heat to low. Season with salt and pepper. 

While sauce simmers, cook pasta in salted boiling water until the pasta is cooked al dente (with a bite). 

Stir cream into sauce. Cook until the sauce is slightly reduced and nicely thickened. Remove sauce from the heat. Drain pasta. Toss hot pasta with sauce and chopped basil. Top generously with parmigiano reggiano cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and more basil.